Wherein I continue to flog the merits of movies made well before I was conceived in favor of the tripe produced by Hollywood today…
Sorcerers, crocodiles, ethnically-inappropriate mushrooms and overheated dinosaurs are just some of the things to be seen in Fantasia, a cartoon that’s never really found a niche.
Disney couldn’t really have been blamed for the commercial failure of the film. At the time it was produced, no one was really sure just yet what the demographics were for animation. Snow White had been quite popular, obviously with children; but adults were able to enjoy it as well, despite Walt’s apparent inability to properly pluralize dwarf.
Fantasia, however, wasn’t really made for children, and that might be one reason it’s been largely misunderstood and mostly unwatched. That’s really rather sad; Fantasia is easily one of the ten best movies ever made in the United States.
I’d like to hit some of the ways this movie has been more or less consistently mismarketed before I go into why I believe it’s such a gem. When you think of Fantasia, odds are pretty good you remember a mouse wearing a wizard’s cap; or hippos and crocs dancing a ballet; or Coolie-style saprophytes wriggling and dancing.
That’s why Fantasia has always missed the mark. Those are the cutesy, populist aww-gee-whiz scenes, the scenes that flatly don’t to the movie justice. If you Google the movie all you get is page after page of that freakish anthropomorphic rat, with the occasional ’shroom or centaur thrown in as a distraction. And that is not, not, not what the movie is about.
Really, Fantasia is not about anything. It’s more like a series of music videos linked into a movie, music videos done by stunningly talented craftspeople and set to classical music. But rather than express the film as a conceptual art piece, or as a feast for the eyes and ears with occasional — and rather brief — forays into Disneyesque juvenalia, it seemed Walt’s marketing people in 1940 had as hard a time pigeonholing the film as their contemporaries. Push Mickey, they seem to believe. Push Mickey and don’t worry about the details.*
But details are really at the heart of Fantasia. As a concrete example, take a look at the piece the movie begins with: Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, orchestral form. There’s no story to it, no plot. Instead the animators created motion sequences that, to them, represented the sounds the music was making.
You don’t have to go farther than that to decide if you’re going to enjoy the movie or not. If you find yourself more or less rooted to the spot in fascination, rest assured that the film will satisfy you (though you might find some of the narrative parts, particularly the much-overplayed Sorcerer’s Apprentice piece, a bit dull). If the Bach makes you want to pass out, pick a different film.
From the perspective alone of marketing, Fantasia would seem a bit of a disaster, then. There’s no real demographic of any size to target. But from a creative and technical point of view, Fantasia was groundbreaking.
To begin with, animators were let loose, allowed to put onscreen, more or less intact, the visions they had on listening to music. The next time that would happen would be more than twenty years later in the “psychedelic” phase of the 1960s. But beyond the creative freedom there came technical progress that, until the release of Toy Story, was not improved upon — because there was no way to improve on it.
The multiplane camera was one of the most important inventions of the art of animation; with it, focus could be pulled through a scene, giving flat two-dmensional drawings a genuine sense of depth and resonance. That alone was a massive step forward, but Disney used a one-up model with a vengeance in Fantasia, a seven-layer multiplane rig that was the animation equivalent of the climactic space battle scene from Return of the Jedi, wherein several hundred model effects elements were combined to produce a feeling of dense dogfighting — the difference being that Disney’s effect rig was used over and over again throughout the film, not just in one five-second-long sequence.
This, along with the use of multichannel stereo sound, allowed audiences to become immersed not just in the visuals, but in the audio of the film. And the techniques developed and explored in Fantasia remained high-water marks in the art of animation, not to be outdone until computer-generated animation hit the scene more than five decades after Disney’s release.
Beyond this is the sense of craft that comes from almost every frame of the movie. The second piece, animated to The Nutcracker Suite, features ethereally-beautiful fairies coasting along in gowns that glow luminously from within, and this effect was acheived by painstaking and careful airbrushing of hundreds of individual animation cels. Even the blatantly Catholic Night on Bald Mountain is made tolerable to my atheist’s eyes by the simple evocative power of the imagery.
This movie has no storyline to speak of; it doesn’t include hip one-liners or clever sound bites; it contains precisely zero high-end computer-generated effects and doesn’t rely upon saccharine hackneyed plots. But compared to insipid products such as Over the Hedge, Fantasia is very much in a class all its own. Don’t get this one to show the kids — get it as a treat for yourself.
* Perhaps this could be more heretically expressed as Mickey helps those who help themselves.
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